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A Curious Confidence

Gabe Lyons

Why are we afraid to disagree?

Founder of Q / Author
March 9, 2015

“Achieving disagreement.” That’s a curious phrase. Is disagreement really something to achieve? It’s intriguing because it implies you can’t safely assume that all ideological conflict counts as legitimate disagreement. And it’s provocative because it seems to suggest that disagreement is something to seek after, to embrace.

We don’t always achieve disagreement. We often fail. When we don’t truly understand the other—if we can’t articulate their view charitably—we fail genuinely to disagree. So what’s the difference between really, actually disagreeing—entering into a shared conversation—as opposed to a competition of monologues? Gabe Lyons is used to achieving disagreement. (That’s a compliment, remember.) As founder of Q Ideas, he’s spent the last 10 years dreaming of a different Christian presence in the public sphere—a presence filled with confidence, curiosity, and a willingness to learn from everyone.

The Table: People are often afraid to disagree. We either surrender thinking for ourselves in the face of differing opinions, or the fear overwhelms us to the point of defensiveness and hostility. Why do you think that is?

Gabe Lyons: I think we’re many times afraid to disagree because it creates conflict and many of us just aren’t comfortable with conflict. We’ve been taught that we’re supposed to be polite. But being polite isn’t necessarily going to accomplish us learning to think better together. In many cases, we need to be more clear, and of course, sensitive in how we communicate ideas, but we need to be okay realizing that in a world with 7 billion people, there’s going to be disagreement.

There’s going to be different points of view. There’s going to be different ways we’ve each been raised. The worldviews that we’ve developed and experiences that we’ve taken in or been a part of are going to shape the way we see the world, and to own that up front and say, “I realize I come into this conversation with a lot of bias because of all those experiences. And if you can acknowledge that you also come to this conversation with a lot of bias, maybe we can have some progress together because we recognize that neither of us think purely about probably much of anything.” It’s all informed by multiple experiences and ideas and things we’ve read and conversations we’ve had.

Let’s now bring our best thinking to the table and be okay that we might come out of this conversation disagreeing. But it doesn’t mean we have to be disagreeable types of people.

In some sense, everyone comes at the world and everyone sees the world in a different way. How can we search for commonalities knowing that we all see things differently?

I think for the Christian, we do have an objective truth that we believe in, and that guides us. It’s not just left up to our thoughts and our thinking and our processes and our experiences to determine what’s true or how things ought to be.

We have this fixed point outside of ourselves—God. That gives us directives for how we ought to think about things. Certainly, there are minor points to be debated about what we can know God is clear about and what other things God seems to just never speak to.

But for the most part, we can catch a pretty general rhythm and a sense of what is true. That objective truth guides the Christian into a conversation or into a discussion or into a way of life that’s based on something much more than just their experiences. I think that’s important to point out.

Then I would say as you try to have conversations with those who come from a different point of view, to own the fact about where you’re finding your objective truth. That’s just intellectually honest. And many times it’s important simply because it allows the person you’re having a conversation with to know what’s driving your thinking, versus them trying to guess at that.

Many Christians don’t recognize or acknowledge that the way they think is a commitment to this fixed‑point reality that exists outside of us, apart from our existence. This truth exists objectively—whether we like it or not, believe it or not. Whether or not we want to abide by what we think it’s telling us to do with our lives, it still is.

Objective truth. A lot of Christians are wary about giving away any ground—to be willing to budge on their theological or moral positions. Sometimes that reference to the fixed standard outside of us can be mixed up or confused with a justification for stubbornness or dogmatism—not being willing to be open to new evidence, open to new arguments, open to another person’s perspective. Can you talk a little bit about objectivity in light of the virtue of open‑mindedness and the vice of close‑mindedness What’s going on there?

It could be easy to assume that, if a Christian has beliefs based on objective truth, that somehow gives the Christian the right to browbeat others into believing the same thing, or assume that they’ve got it all right.

I think that’s where in the virtues of the mind, for instance the idea of humility, become a critical piece of how any one of us should move forward in these kinds of conversations. We shouldn’t assume we have it all figured out—that we are as God. I mean, that’s the mistake that Adam and Eve made early on, thinking they could be as wise as God.

I think as we’re coming to know God better, know his ways better, we’re always going to find a sense of humility and a sense of being able to still learn more, to discover more, to explore more, to be open to new ways of seeing things and different perspectives that maybe you hadn’t considered before.

When we’re intellectually honest, those new ways of seeing things just add more beauty and more color and more shape to our conversations than you first thought.

What are some of the personal habits that you try to institute when you’re in a conversation with someone that you might find yourself even vehemently disagreeing with?

For me, I’ve found myself wanting to have a true curiosity, to really believe the best about another person. To recognize this truth—that they’re made in the image of God—so they have God’s breath in them and he has created them as a beautiful human being with a beautiful mind.

I want to come into that conversation and say, “I’m really curious about what you think,” and it’s genuine—not false flattery or false humility. To truly say, “I want to understand how you’ve come to this place,” to be able to sit and listen, without every sentence trying to confront what I intellectually disagree with or emotionally want to respond to. And that takes a great deal of discipline and it puts your curiosity into practice.

I believe we can learn from every single person on this earth. I don’t think there’s anybody in this world that—in hearing their story, listening to their experiences, even if we disagree with their conclusions—we couldn’t learn from.

I think we should lead as learners and listeners—especially as people of faith—because that’s how our Savior led. There was a lot of listening and understanding going on in the midst of his conversations with people. He had the divine ability to understand context better than most of us do, so if we could just take a little extra time as flawed human beings to try to understand people’s stories and their context and where they’re coming from, we actually learn a lot.

And many times, that helps us find common ground, because we can discard some of the assumptions we came into the conversation with, realizing those weren’t true. We can actually deal with the substance of the disagreement.

When we can have a conversation not out of defensiveness, but out of curiosity to learn more about the other, I think we both come away from that conversation feeling more human, feeling closer in relationship, and feeling like we’ve demonstrated a minor miracle: to find that common ground that many people in our world never get to experience, because it’s not what’s rewarded in our current media context.

It sounds like you’re talking about personalizing the other. Personalizing the person sitting across from you. Noticing their dignity and being open and willing to be surprised about what’s really there. It’s almost like you’re restoring their humanity in your mind, for the sake of listening to them.

Right. We live in a world where labeling has become second nature, with sound bites and attempts to categorize people into certain positions, whether it’s political or theological, we’re quick to identify conservative and liberal.

As human beings, we’re quick to want to control the other versus actually learn from the other. So we tend to write people off. And that’s not humility. That’s not the way of Jesus. That’s not the way we’re called as followers to engage this beautiful world of wonderful people made in his image.